Jet lag, which scientists first started studying as a physiognomic phenomenon in the 1960s, remains a problem for travellers crossing time zones even today.
The good news, however, is that we now understand jet lag much better and have several coping techniques — either medicine-aided or through lifestyle adaptation — to help travellers in better sleep.
Happiest Health spoke to Dr MS Kanwar, an expert on sleep medicine at the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in New Delhi, at a time when he was suffering from jet lag himself. “I have just returned to Delhi from London,” he said. “I have crossed five time zones travelling east. My body is in the London time zone, where it is midnight, whereas physically I’m in New Delhi, where the local time is 4.30am. My body is telling me I should be in bed, with at least seven more hours of sleep and rest ahead of me. But I have to wake up in just two-and-a-half hours. So, my next day will see me sleep deprived, fatigued and grumpy.”
Symptoms of jet lag
- Sleep cycle not in sync with the place you are in — leading to feeling sleepy in the day and bouts of insomnia at night
- Fatigue consequent to lack of proper rest and from being subjected to atmospheric-pressure changes
- Mood swings arising out of changes in the secretion of hormones like serotonin
- Dehydration accompanied with increased urine output
- Since your body is still used to the time cycle of the place you started your travel from, you will be feeling hungry at odd times in the place you are in now. This can lead to digestion issues, constipation, irregular bowel timings and diarrohea
- General weakness
Jet lag is an unavoidable side-effect of a jet-setting lifestyle. Whether your travel is for leisure or business, your body will slow you down because of the impact of changing time zones fast. While for most people travel may be occasional, frequent travellers — like those who need to country-hop for work (businessmen, airline pilots, cabin crew) — need to find ways of beating jet lag to ensure that it does not hamper their efficiency and proficiency.
Bijoya Talwar Suri spent eight years as a flight attendant on Cathay Pacific. Based out of Hong Kong, her work kept her zipping across time zones with short stops. “In a typical week, I would have travelled east from Hong Kong to Vancouver, back travelling west after a day’s rest, then off westwards to London and back home going east,” she says. “Being constantly on the go, jet lag was a given. But we were given special training where we were taught techniques for coping with jet lag.”
While most travellers recover from the effects of jet lag over a couple of days, it is the frequent travellers who may need medical help. Many frequent travellers may suffer from chronic insomnia, chronic fatigue, chronic digestion issues and poor concentration. For them, coping techniques become necessary along with a visit to the doctor.
Ways to cope with jetlag
“We were trained to adapt our sleep patterns to the destination we were flying to,” says Suri. “Even if you have been up all night on a long haul and arrived at your destination in the morning, try not to give in to the urge to sleep the day away. Stay up, have breakfast, maybe go to the gym for a bit. Take a short nap in the afternoon if you must. But go to sleep at night – maybe a little earlier than you would at home, but generally in keeping with the bedtime of the place you are in.”
Dr Kanwar offers the same advice. “Start acclimatising your body to your destination time a few days before your date of travel,” he says. “If you are flying west, go to bed a few hours later than your normal bedtime. For example, if you are going to the UK from India and your regular bedtime is 11pm, try going to bed around 1am. Conversely, if you are going to travel from the US to India, bring forward your bedtime. Instead of going to bed at 11pm, try going to sleep by 9pm. This will ensure that when you travel, you will already be in sync with your destination.”
Melatonin and sleep
Melatonin, a hormone released by the pineal gland in the brain, is crucial for maintaining the circadian rhythm of your body. This hormone helps the body in maintaining its sleep-awake cycle. Its secretion is impacted by sunlight – it decreases in the daytime and increases at night. When it is secreted, it makes the body ready for sleep.
Melatonin may be taken as a tablet to help you sleep and is often prescribed to avoid the effects of jet lag. “I did melatonin trials in the 1990s,” Dr Kanwar says. “It helps regulate the circadian rhythm. It is now a general practice to take a 3mg tablet three to five hours before the time you want to sleep. But only for two to three days and always in consultation with your doctor, especially if you are taking any other medicines.”